The Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Center at Howard University School of Law and the ACLU of Michigan today sent a letter to the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) demanding it removes Black Skin, White Masks, a book by renowned race theorist Frantz Fanon, from its banned-book list or face legal action. The letter contends that the banning of Black Skin, White Masks violates the U.S. Constitution, the Michigan Constitution, and MDOC’s own internal policies.
In 2000, MDOC instituted an unconstitutional ban from its prison libraries of Black Skin, White Masks, which looks at the effects of racism on the human psyche, citing unfounded concerns of “racial supremacy” as grounds for removal, despite the fact that the book questions the harmfulness of racial supremacy.
“Prison systems have long banned books that seek to inspire and intellectually liberate Black people. It is part of the deeply-entrenched, systemic injustice that exists in our criminal justice system,” said Justin Hansford, executive director of Howard University’s Thurgood Marshall Center. “By banning Black Skin, White Masks, MDOC is violating both the human rights and the constitutional rights of our community members who are locked in the system.”
Many books that seek to educate people on structural racism are banned in prisons across the United States, according to a report on prison book-banning that the Thurgood Marshall Center will release this fall. For example, The New Jim Crow was banned until February 2018 in Florida because it “presented a security threat” and was filled with “racial overtures.” Until last week, Chokehold: Policing Black Men was banned in Arizona prisons. Police Brutality by Elijah Muhammad, Political Prisoners, Prison and Black Liberation by Angela Davis, and Prison Industrial Complex for Beginners are still prohibited in Florida prisons.
“It is incomprehensible to me that MDOC has banned a book that is not only educational but restorative,” said Mireille Fanon-Mendes France, decolonial activist and daughter of Frantz Fanon, who partnered with the Center on the letter. “By his practice and his commitments, my father Frantz Fanon sought to understand what prevented human beings from standing up and to address negative approaches. Both racialized and non-racialized people have told me that reading Black Skin, White Masks brought them strength.”
The letter contends that MDOC’s book banning practices violate the First Amendment right to be free from arbitrary government censorship, as incarcerated people do not abdicate all of their First Amendment rights upon conviction. The Supreme Court has stated that for a ban on a book to be constitutional, there must be a “‘valid, rational connection’ between the prison regulation and the legitimate governmental interest put forward to justify it.” Furthermore, by banning an educational and rehabilitative book, MDOC is also defying its own policy directives to “provide humane and protective custodial care, [and] rehabilitative opportunities.”
“I’m confident the MDOC will do the right thing and remove Fanon’s masterful book on structural racism from its banned-book list,” said Michael J. Steinberg, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan. “Censoring this iconic work not only violates the First Amendment, but it interferes with the rehabilitation of people who are incarcerated.”
The letter has been signed by a host of influential scholars, including Cornel West, King Downing, and Neil Roberts, and organizations including the National Lawyers Guild Mass Incarceration Committee. The full list is pasted below.
This fall, the Thurgood Marshall Center will release a major report documenting how today’s overly punitive prison book banning policies relate to this country’s long history of restricting literacy for Black people. The report will also outline the path for departments of correction in all 50 states to halt and rectify their book-banning policies.
Dr. Cornel West
Firoze Manji, Publisher, Daraja Press
Neil Roberts, Williams College
Lewis Gordon, University of Connecticut; Rhodes University, South Africa; Global Center for Advanced Studies
Jane Anna Gordon, University of Connecticut
King Downing, Founder, Human Rights-Racial Justice Center
Detroit Justice Center
Caribbean Philosophical Association
National Lawyers Guild Mass Incarceration Committee
Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights
About the Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Center at Howard University School of Law
The Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Center is the flagship setting for the study and practice of civil rights law at Howard University, the leading historically Black university in the United States. We seek to expand civil rights, human rights, freedom, and equal justice under the law by integrating legal advocacy, grassroots organizing, and academic study. With the Human and Civil Rights Law Clinic, we engage in strategic partnerships with national and local organizations dedicated to litigating civil and human rights issues. We also develop policy expertise to inform local and national activists and advocates promote community-led campaigns.
About Mireille Fanon-Mendès France
Mireille Fanon-Mendès-France is a French activist, president of the Frantz Fanon International Foundation. She has written numerous articles on human rights and international and humanitarian law, on the process of radicalization and discrimination, on the coloniality of power, knowledge and being. She has taught literature at the National Education and Didactics at the Center for Continuing Education at Paris V Descartes University and has been invited by many universities to speak on legal issues, international law, and conflict resolution. She also worked for UNESCO and the National Assembly. In 2009, she received the Human Rights Award from the Council for Justice, Equality and Peace. She is a member of the French Jewish Union for Peace. Since 2011, she has been an expert on the United Nations Working Group on People of African Descent, where she served as Chair from 2014 to 2016.
About the ACLU of Michigan
For nearly 100 years, the ACLU has worked in courts, legislatures, and communities to protect the constitutional rights of all people. With a nationwide network of offices and millions of members and supporters, we take up the toughest civil liberties fights. Beyond one person, party, or side — we the people dare to create a more perfect union. Learn more at aclu.org.